Last of the Monster Kids

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Monday, July 31, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

What started as seemingly another cynical attempt to relaunch a long dormant franchise unexpectedly became one of the most beloved modern sci-fi series. The new decade's “Planet of the Apes” series are popular with audiences but have been even better received by critics and serious film fans. Now, as these things tend to, the trilogy seemingly reaches its conclusion. “War for the Planet of the Apes” builds upon the last two films in audacious ways, resulting in a summer blockbuster that is thematically complex and emotionally bracing. The result may be one of the best films of the year.

The war between the humans and the apes have raged for quite some time. Caesar has led his apes into hiding, only fighting back when attacked, making several concessions towards peace. Koba's remaining followers have aligned themselves with an extremist human sect called Alpha-Omega. The group's unbalanced leader, McCullough, leads a strike against Caesar's base, killing his wife and son. Bereaved, Caesar instructs his tribe to leave for greener pastures while he sets off on a mission of revenge. He discovers two things: That the still-lingering virus is transforming humans into mute, unintelligent brutes. And that Alpha-Omega are enslaving apes, running a prison camp, forcing them to build weapons to fight both humans and apes.

Andy Serkis' Caesar continues to be one of the most complex protagonists in modern sci-fi cinema. Motion capture technology has evolved to uncanny heights, as these apes are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. This allows Serkis' already impressive performance more depth. He carries a heavy, world-weary expression on his brow. Furthermore, the film delves deeply into the cost of vengeance. After deciding he has to destroy McCullough, Caesar is haunted by nightmares of Koba. He worries he is becoming a monster himself, loosing his compassion and level-headedness to grief and madness. This is the cost of war in microcosm, showing that the kind of hard decisions combat forces people to make rots away at the soul.

This theme is further explored in the character of Colonel McCullough. First off, Woody Harrelson is terrifying in the part. He delivers an incredibly intense monologue to a captured Caesar, explaining how he murdered his own son to protect his people. His troops revere him with an almost religious awe. They paint their own symbol over the American flag, branding their weapons and slaves with it. Yet the film goes out of it ways to paint parallels between McCullough and Caesar. Both have lost a child to the conflict. Both are motivated by protecting their people. Both have been forced to make hard decision in the heat of battle. The difference is Caesar struggles with his conscious while McCullough has been overtaken by the madness of war.

In fact, director Matt Reeves and his team seem eager to build deeper references into the film. “War for the Planet of the Apes” is the second simian-themed film of the year to reference “Apocalypse Now,” which is an interesting trend. Caesar being tormented and stoned by his captors bring the Christ story to mind. The ape freeing his people from oppressors and leading them on a journey through the desert recalls Exodus. It also brings “Spartacus” to mind. Yet recent events seem equally on the film's mind. McCullough fills his speech with an anti-outsider rhetoric. He drapes his camp in the American flag but seems ignorant of its meaning. He's also, it must be noted, is obsessed with building a wall on a border. And he's going to make the apes pay for it. “War for the Planet of the Apes” makes its story of the fall of the human empire more potent with parallels to our current political quagmire.

Whatever lofty ideas “War for the Planet of the Apes” has, it also understands that it is still an action movie. It satisfies on that front too. The film begins with a bracing battle sequence, Reeves' camera placed right in the trenches, walking side-by-side apes and humans. The battle gets chaotic but never becomes difficult to follow. Later, we are treated to a tense horse-back chase. The film's conclusion is packed with giant explosions and gun fights. It's viscerally exciting without ever loosing track of the people (and apes) on the ground.  Mostly, “War for the Planet of the Apes” fills its run time with suspense. As Caesar's allies attempt to free him from the prison camp, the audience is constantly left wandering if someone will be caught, if the cast will successfully navigate this new roadblock.

Naturally, “War for the Planet of the Apes” peppers its plot with homages to the original series. The outside of McCullough's camp is decorated with deceased apes, strung up like the scarecrows in the original film. Most pivotal is a new character, a mute girl that is adopted by the apes. She is later named Nova. That's but one lovable new addition to the cast. Steve Zahn appears as Bad Ape, an eccentric ape whose mind has been slightly scattered by years in isolation. Zahn proves a fantastic source of comic relief. Which is nice, considering “War” is an otherwise very serious affair.

I continue to admire the guts of this series. “War for the Planet of the Apes” continues a pricey sci-fi franchise that features few human characters, tackles heavy themes and has long scenes in subtitled sign language. “War” also presents interesting possibilities for the future. One story arc is concluded but future films have some tantalizing opportunities ahead. The latest film is maybe the most entry in the rebooted series, proving amazingly effective as blockbuster entertainment and smartly executed drama. [9/10]

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